A legend and a genius, Eichenlaub left his mark

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The passing of Carl Eichenlaub saddened the sailing community worldwide, for he was not just a gifted boatbuilder who counted great sailors such as Malin Burnham or Lowell North among his friends and customers. He also could fix just about anything, as he proved all of his life but especially as the shipwright of the U.S. Olympic sailing team — a job he held from 1976 until 2004.

Carl Eichenlaub, here in his vintage garb, ran errands using the electric golf cart in the background.

Eichenlaub, who was 83 when he died in November, also will be remembered as a goodwill ambassador with a toolbox and as a beacon of humor and humanity in a (sailing) world that all too often is blinded by greed and ambition. Helping competitors in need without neglecting his own team often was an act of delicate balance and great courage. It drew scrutiny and criticism, but if anyone could get away with it, it was Carl. And that is part of his legend — and his legacy.

Back when I called San Diego home and worked at a boating paper in Shelter Island, I often saw Eichenlaub. He was hard to miss in his custom couture that combined a three-day stubble with work pants, suspenders, paint-stained shirt and a 10-gallon hat. He used to zip around on an electric golf cart. It was a quiet and practical ride, but it offered no protection when he got broadsided by an SUV that ran a red light. He was dinged up badly, but in typical fashion he didn’t dwell on it. “Broke my shoulder and a few other things, but it was not the first time I came close to the complete catastrophe,” he told me. “You deal with it and get on with life.”

The life of Carl Martin Eichenlaub Jr. began July 30, 1930, in San Diego as the only child of Carl Eichenlaub and Wilhelmina Pennybaker. He learned how to sail on Mission Bay, cruising around on Inner Sanctum, a 16-foot plywood sloop he built from the plans in a how-to-book. He was handy, curious, competitive and loved the sport, so he started building boats on Shelter Island in the early 1950s after graduating from San Diego State. First came the Sabots, then the Snipes and the Lightnings.

An ace sailor, he won the Lightning Internationals in Michigan in 1960 — in an Eichenlaub boat, of course. To sharpen his skills, he often squeezed himself into an 8-foot Sabot to practice on Mission Bay, winning the Adult Championship in 1959. “If you can sail a Sabot well, you can sail anything well,” became a well-known Eichenlaub dictum.

In the ’60s he collaborated with North, then the dominant sailor in the Star class, as well as the designer of its new lines. North was busy making sails, so he asked Eichenlaub to build him a new boat, which worked out well for both. North kept winning championships and Eichenlaub Stars became en vogue. But soon the Star Class allowed fiberglass, a material that Eichenlaub considered a scourge. He believed that boats made from a “roll of cloth and a barrel of resin” would continue to cure after the hull had been removed from the mold, thus being subject to a lot of flex. He was quoted by Sports Illustrated in 1965: “If a wooden boat changes shape, it’s fairly easy to correct. With fiberglass, you’re in a mess.”

History proved Eichenlaub wrong, but despite his distaste for “frozen snot” he learned to fix it. No moment proved that more than at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, when Bill Buchan’s self-built Star did not comply with measurement requirements. Buchan called it the “worst nightmare” because his participation in the Olympics was riding on it, as was his integrity as a sailor and class executive. The boat was too narrow at the stern, so Eichenlaub made four incisions along the chines and the deck with a Skilsaw, put wedges in and polyestered over it.

“I felt honored that Bill would trust me with the repair. It was quite a drama to cut a boat open in front of God and everybody, adjust it and glass her back together,” Eichenlaub said. It worked, and Buchan won Gold.

“Carl was in all my Olympic campaigns,” says Mark Reynolds, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the Star. “He’s the best when it comes to fixing something quickly and in ingenious ways.”

In 1976 Reynolds accompanied his father, Jim, who often crewed for Dennis Conner, to the Olympics in Toronto. “At the time, Finn masts were required to float, meaning they had to be airtight,” Reynolds says. “Our Finn sailor, Peter Commette, had gone out to practice and left his competition mast with Carl. While everyone was trying to seal the many rivet holes one-by-one, Carl simply poured a bottle of radiator-stop-leak fluid down the inside of the mast, and the job was done.”

Helping others for the good of it

Eichenlaub at the helm of Cadenza, a Nelson Marek 45, during the Big Boat Series in San Francisco, one of his favorite regattas.

Four years earlier, then-unknown Doug Peterson had walked into Eichenlaub’s yard, “poor as a church mouse,” as Eichenlaub observed. He had designed a One-Tonner for the North American Championships that were to be held in San Diego. He wanted to build it and sail it to show everyone what he could do. But first he tried to lure Eichenlaub into a partnership. And Carl bit.

“I raised my half through John Mueller, and Doug got the other half out of his grandmother,” Eichenlaub said. They had a month to build the boat that was about to enter the chronicles of yacht racing history as Ganbare. It looked radically different than any other IOR racer, being lighter and shorter and with a longer waterline. Built and kitted out on a slim budget, the strip-planked boat made the start, being towed out to the first race while halyards were still being rigged.

“When they got back, Ganbare barely floated,” says Ed Barr, a San Diego Yacht Club member who saw the story unfold. “She had an acute case of the uglies and was half-sinking, but she represented a quantum leap in yacht design.” Ganbare won the regatta, putting Peterson on the map as a designer and cementing Eichenlaub’s reputation as a miracle man.

And it might have helped endorse him for the gig as shipwright for the U.S. Olympic team. Sometimes he got into hot water for helping other teams, but his work often created sympathies that came in handy. At the PanAm Games, the United States once protested Brazil’s Lightning for a perceived infraction of the measurement rules. The boat was found to be compliant, which caused tempers to flare.

“As far as [the Brazilians] were concerned, we were just a bunch of low-life bastards,” Eichenlaub said. “The next day, their J/24 got into a tremendous collision that made the bow pulpit look like a steamroller ran over it. Since I was the only one with welding equipment, the contrite Brazilians asked if it wasn’t possible to fix the problem because class rules demand a pulpit for racing. So I straightened it out, rewelded all the joints and put it on the boat. When I went back to my room, there were two cases of beer at the doorstep, and the next day we were the salt of the earth.”

Renaissance man with humor

Eichenlaub wasn’t just a Samaritan; he also liked a prank. At the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympics, he broke ranks with the sailing team to walk among the towering U.S. “Dream Team” basketball members and next to track star Carl Lewis while on live television. And he once pulled his Wanderlodge into a gas station in Vegas on a hot day towing a horse trailer with “Eichenlaub Farms” stenciled on the sides. “Think my horses will be OK here?” Eichenlaub asked the attendant. “Better to park ’em in the shade,” the man replied. “Could you make sure that they always have enough water while I am in town?” Eichenlaub asked. The poor chap probably never found out that he wasn’t watching Carl’s horses but his mobile boat workshop.

Eichenlaub often used his wit and deadpan humor to his advantage. An example is a talk he gave for the varsity sailing team of San Diego State University, his alma mater. “Before him, Dennis Conner and Dick Deaver had talked about tactics,” says Mark Reynolds, who was one of the students. “We were impressed, so Carl had to get our attention. ‘Forget all you just heard,’ he told us. ‘It’s BS. All you really need to win is a faster boat.’”

As much as fast boats were part of Eichenlaub’s life, there also was his love of music. “I played flute and piccolo when I was a kid and a student,” he said. “When I got the yard going I did not play for 10 years, but I missed the music.” He took up the bassoon because he was fond of its sound and the company of fellow bassoonists. He played in several orchestras and sometimes hit the road with the Wanderlodge to join jam sessions, which he called “bassoon regattas.”

In 2006, Eichenlaub’s daughter Betty Sue Sherman became the first female commodore of San Diego Yacht Club. It was a proud moment for Eichenlaub, who built her a Pacific Class 32 in varnished mahogany for the occasion. After all, what’s a commodore without a proper flagship? It was the first PC built from scratch since 1956 and the first to come out of his shop. “It’s a good project, the kind of job he needed,” Sherman said at the time. “When it’s done I have to figure out what’s next because for my father, boats are the best therapy.”

Eichenlaub preferred to get his therapy on his own boats named Cadenza, which was a fitting choice. In musical terms that’s a passage sung or played by a soloist to showcase virtuosity. And Carl Eichenlaub was nothing if not a virtuoso, building boats and fixing them. He loved sailing Cadenza or playing a cadenza on the bassoon. All the while he knew how to have fun and stay mensch.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

March 2014 issue

Editor's note: The original version of this story contained an error regarding Dennis Conner's crew at the 1976 Olympic regatta, which was Conn Findlay, not Jim Reynolds.